Rocket attack on Israel hits during Bush visit

U.S. President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush are escorted by Israeli president Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv
U.S. President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush are escorted by Israeli president Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv Nati Shohat / MCT

JERUSALEM — The difficulties facing President Bush in securing a new Middle East peace deal exploded Wednesday when a Palestinian rocket crashed into a southern Israeli medical center as the U.S. president joined world leaders in Jerusalem to celebrate the nation's 60th anniversary.

Hours after Bush met with Israeli leaders to discuss the status of shaky peace talks with the Palestinians, militants from the Gaza Strip scored their most destructive hit on Ashkelon, southern Israel's largest coastal city, about 10 miles north of the Gaza border.

The Katyusha-style rocket decimated a medical center on the top floor of a mall, seriously injuring three people, including in eight-year-old girl and her mother. At least 11 other people were injured in the first such rocket attack on Ashkelon since early March.

With Bush and other world leaders looking on during a gala celebration later in the evening, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called the attack "entirely intolerable and unacceptable."

"The government of Israel is committed to stop it, and we will take the necessary steps so that this will stop," said Olmert.

The attack from the volatile Gaza Strip served to highlight one of the daunting complexities facing the Bush administration in its final months as the president tries to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Gaza remains firmly under the control of Hamas hard-liners who refuse to recognize Israel, oppose the Bush administration peace process and stage near-daily rocket attacks on southern Israel.

Hamas seized military control of Gaza last June by routing rival fighters loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

After nearly a year of trying to force Hamas to capitulate by imposing a crippling economic blockade on Gaza, Israel appears to be moving closer to launching a military showdown with the Islamist forces.

Even before the attack on Ashkelon, Olmert urged Hamas leaders to accept Israeli conditions for a cease-fire that is being brokered by Egypt.

"We hope that we will not have to act against Hamas in other ways with the military power that Israel has not yet started to use in a serious manner in order to stop it," Olmert said after meeting with Bush in Jerusalem. "But it entirely depends on responding positively to the principles set forth by me and by the Israeli cabinet in order to stop these operations."

Bush reaffirmed his support for Israel's refusal to talk directly with Hamas.

"Hamas's stated objective is the destruction of the State of Israel, and therefore the United States will stand strongly with Israel, as well as stand strongly with the Palestinians who don't share that vision," Bush said.

Hamas leaders have so far rejected Israel's new condition that a cease fire in Gaza be contingent in part upon progress in talks to secure the freedom of Gilad Shalit, a young Israeli soldier captured by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip nearly two years ago.

Wednesday's attack came in the opening hours of Bush's five-day Middle East trip designed in part to prod Israeli-Palestinian peace talks along.

On the eve of Bush's visit, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice conceded that securing a deal before the president leaves office in eight months "might be improbable, but it is not impossible."

Throughout the day, Bush reaffirmed America's commitment to Israel and described the nation of 7 million at one point as "our strongest ally and friend in the Middle East — the only true democracy against the forces of terror."

"If you looked back 60 years ago and tried to guess where Israel would be at that time, it would be hard to be able to project such a prosperous, hopeful land," Bush said during a meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Wednesday's rocket attack diverted attention from the other looming hurdle facing peace talks: An unfolding political corruption probe that could end Olmert's political career.

Police have spent the week questioning key witnesses and searching government offices for evidence, though any indictment could still be months away.

Ironically, during Wednesday night's gala, Olmert sat four seats away from U.S. businessman Sheldon Adelson, who was reportedly questioned on Tuesday by Israeli police as part of the investigation.

Police are trying to determine if Olmert asked Adelson to help one of his American donors, Morris Talansky, in exchange for campaign contributions — a charge that Olmert has adamantly denied.

If indicted, Olmert has said that he would resign. American officials are concerned that Olmert will be deposed or, at the very least, distracted by the investigation.

On Wednesday, Olmert was overheard reassuring National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley soon after Bush and his aides arrived at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport.

"Holding on, holding on," Olmert told Hadley. "Don't worry."

During his talk with Bush, Peres noted that the peace talks with the Palestinians are being led by two women: Rice and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

"I'm thinking this is the first time that two ladies are negotiating peace," Peres told Bush.

"The men haven't been able to get it done," Bush replied. "Maybe they will."